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Welcome to East Cleveland
The most troubled community in Cuyahoga County. But some residents see reason for hope amid the blight.

Walter Novak


From the Week of Thursday, February 8, 2001
Plate Expectations

When Old Punks Dry Out
Lizard man rises from the wreckage of success.

Jacks Jilted
Hank Kassigkeit picked up the Lumberjacks. Their fans let Kassigkeit down.

A Painful Lesson
Letters published February 8, 2001

Michele Ragland was five years old in 1966 when her family moved to East Cleveland. She'd run around her neighborhood playing hide-and-seek, feeling completely safe amid the well-kept homes owned by stable families, both white and black. "It was wonderful then," she says.

Now, Ragland and her husband are raising their sons just a few blocks away from where she grew up. But East Cleveland is no longer the town she remembers.

She walks her kids to school past abandoned, decaying buildings. Though her old brick apartment building, with its freshly painted trim, looks stately and well-maintained from the outside, sections of her bathroom and kitchen ceilings have collapsed. Water from a leaky pipe made a hole in her kitchen floor. Mice skitter about at night.

Ragland and her family hope to move out of East Cleveland this year. It won't be easy, since her husband, a mechanic, is laid up after a car accident, and she's out of work, except for the money she earns making Egyptian-style earrings and jewelry boxes. But her parents already left a few years ago. Her mother is telling her to do the same.

"It's horrible now," Ragland says. "You hear gunshots at night."

Three years ago, outside Ragland's previous apartment, a teenager fatally shot two of his friends, then turned the gun on himself. Scared, she moved across town. Then this fall, an auto mechanic she knew was shot to death during an argument with a customer. She happened upon the crime scene, two blocks from her home, on the way to her sons' day-care center.

"I never would have thought East Cleveland would have come to this," she says.

For years, the three-square-mile city has been the most troubled community in Greater Cleveland. Its school system, which the state considers the worst in the Cleveland area, has mismanaged its finances so badly that, at one point last year, the FBI and IRS suspected criminal activity. The city loses track of half the water it buys, resulting in higher water bills.

Residents pay some of the highest taxes in Cuyahoga County, but their municipal government still struggles for money. That's because the city is the poorest in the county and one of the poorest in Ohio. There simply isn't much to tax.

The understaffed police department gets 38,000 calls a year from its 29,000 residents. Prisoners are stuffed into an outdated, overcrowded jail. So many abandoned buildings scar the streets that it will take the city, at its current pace, four years to have them all torn down.

"We need almost a billion-dollar budget, not 15 million," the mayor says, in a moment of exasperation.

Wherever there's decline, the hopeful watch for signs of rebirth. And optimistic East Clevelanders point to a falling crime rate, gardens sprouting as neighborhoods bounce back, and plans -- most of them still on paper -- for repaved streets, repairs to schools, and new, modern houses.

But for now, there's a sense that the city is still caught up in a struggle against vicious circles, age, and scarce funds. In most of its neighborhoods and on much of Euclid Avenue, East Cleveland seems weighted down by its history.

A hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller summered in East Cleveland. It was a budding village created as a home for "select society," in the words of its then-mayor. Forest Hill, the Rockefeller family estate, sprawled across hundreds of acres, while just to the north, a suburb of "graded streets, flagged sidewalks, and artistic homes" was being built along Euclid Avenue.


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